'X-Men' vs. the Gang of Three : Animated Series Has Helped Fox Challenge the Other Networks on Saturday Mornings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the years since the Fox Broadcasting Co. formed an ad hoc network of TV stations in 1986, Fox's strategy of pursuing young viewers has frequently proved to be a nuisance--but rarely a serious threat--to the dominance of the Big Three networks.

Until now.

For four of the past six weeks, Fox has staked a claim as the top-rated network on Saturday mornings for kids 2 to 11--the age group most sought after by advertisers during that time period. Perhaps more significantly, on three of those weeks, Fox's ragtag network of small independent TV stations, many of them low-power UHF stations, drew as many or more total households watching television than either CBS, ABC or NBC.

The little network that could received a sudden boost from the mutant power of "X-Men," an animated series that finished as the No. 1 show with children last Saturday morning after only six weeks on the air, according to A.C. Nielsen Co. figures released Friday. Ironically, the serial "X-Men," based on one of the largest-selling lines in history from Marvel Comics, benefited by production delays that pushed the scheduled September premiere back to January, when the other networks were cycling through reruns.

Although CBS holds a decided advantage on Saturday mornings in season-to-date ratings for both children and households, Fox's surging lineup of animation, led by "X-Men," has contributed to the viewer erosion on the Big Three networks. The share of ABC's audience of children 2 to 11 this season has dropped 5% from last season, while CBS has fallen 8%.

At the same time, the share of the kids audience on Fox has shot up 33%. Six of the top 10 shows last Saturday morning belonged to Fox.

NBC, for its part, abandoned programming for young children altogether on Saturday mornings this season. Already getting soundly beaten by Fox last season, the network chose instead to focus on adults in the early morning with the "Today" show and on teen-agers--whom NBC claims spend $40 billion a year of their own money--later in the morning, with live-action shows rather than cartoons.

"There's been a real misconception," said Linda Mancuso, NBC's vice president of children's and family programming. "People think we're out of the kids business. That's not true. We're just dealing with older kids."

But Fox has taken a chunk of them, too. Before "X-Men," NBC had the three highest-rated teen series on Saturday morning, with two editions of the sitcom "Saved by the Bell" and the wish-fulfillment series "California Dreams." "X-Men" now ranks No. 2 among teens, thanks to the heavy concentration of teen-age boys who've flocked to the show.

" 'X-Men' has put Fox over the hump, that's very accurate," said Haim Saban, president of Saban Entertainment, which won the bid to produce "X-Men." "But Fox was on its way to No. 1 anyway. Not to minimize our contribution, but Fox was going to get there. What 'X-Men' has done is accelerate what would have happened anyway."

Most observers agree that Fox's rise on Saturday was inevitable. Unlike the other networks, Fox lets kids toon out six days a week with blocks of "Beetlejuice!," "Tiny Toon Adventures" and "Batman: The Animated Series," among others, on weekday mornings and afternoons--during which the network can plug its Saturday morning lineup. The other networks and their affiliates generally aim for adults on weekdays with network news programs in the morning and soap operas and syndicated talk shows during the afternoon.

In addition, the Fox Children's Network, the umbrella organization under which all of Fox's children's programming falls, runs a Fox Kids Club, which it says has swollen to in excess of 5 million card-carrying members. With Fox acting as a national "headquarters," spending $1.2 million a quarter to publish and mail fan magazines packed with Fox children's programming tidbits, Fox affiliate stations serve as local "chapters," holding community activities, meetings and contests for the young viewers.

"We have a powerful distribution system that cross-promotes all the day parts," said Margaret Loesch, president of Fox Children's Network, which went from 10 hours of programming last season to 19 hours this season. "And the Kids Club is part of that marketing, promotion and distribution system. The underlying theme of the Children's Network is pushed with that magazine, that kids belong to the network."

Judy Price, vice president of children's programs and daytime specials for CBS, said that "Fox has the best of all worlds. It's a kid-friendly network to begin with, with a prime-time schedule that's very youth-oriented."

CBS rose to No. 1 in prime time primarily with sophisticated adult series, so there are few places to pitch CBS' popular lineup of "The Little Mermaid," "Garfield and Friends" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." Overall, the bulk of the Saturday morning promotions by the major networks take place during Saturday morning.

Fox holds numerous other advantages over the competing networks in the kids derby, as well. The Saturday morning schedules at ABC, CBS and NBC are regularly preempted by sports programming, and those networks also consider it an obligation to cover breaking news stories, while most Fox affiliates don't even have news divisions.

"Fox affiliates don't carry news and they don't have sports, because Fox is not yet a full-service network," Price said. "Fox is getting into the news business and late-night television, and that will start leveling the playing field a bit. Once you start branching out, it spreads your focus as well as your funds."

In addition, executives at CBS, ABC and NBC say that 30% or more of their stations preempt network programming on Saturday mornings in some form with their own programming. Last Saturday, NBC's national morning feed was carried by only 60% of the network's affiliates, NBC's Mancuso estimated, while Fox's cartoons were transmitted to more than 95% of the country.

CBS, ABC and NBC are by no means giving up. Unlike prime time, the Saturday morning ratings crown frequently changes heads on a year to year basis--and Fox is still a long shot to steal it away from CBS this season.

Even though NBC has taken itself out of the running for young children by narrowing its focus, the network's competitors laud NBC for its teen tactics this season. NBC has pulled in solid demographics with its live-action teen series, especially "Saved by the Bell," which will replace its entire young cast next season. Furthermore, NBC Productions owns those shows, so the network stands to earn a higher profit on them.

ABC, on the other hand, will lose three popular series next season from Walt Disney Television: "Goof Troop," "Darkwing Duck" and "The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh." Disney, which syndicates its own block of cartoons on weekdays in competition with Fox, simply decided that it could make more money selling its series directly to TV stations rather than accepting ABC's lower license fee.

"The commitment on ABC's part, along with (parent company Capital Cities/ABC Inc.), is to continue in this day part," said Jennie Trias, vice president of children's programming for ABC, which recently reshuffled the order of its lineup to try to find a mix that works better. "The stakes are high. Saturday morning is still a profitable business for CBS and ABC, otherwise we wouldn't stay in it."

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